Monthly Archives: January 2013

On remembering and sharing – reminiscing with the older peoples group at Windmill Hill City Farm

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The Sharing Memories, Sharing Futures project

Windmill Hill City Farm is an independent community project situated half a mile south of Bristol city centre, which aims to meet the needs of local people through a wide range of social, environmental, educational, recreational and economic activities.

I’ve been working alongside community development and volunteer coordinator  Jules Allen and artist in residence Joe Nute to develop work with various local groups and local people and finding out about their personal stories for the shared memories, shared futures project. The first project topic is that of food.  It is intended to create an exhibition with illustrations, photos, stories and poetry. We spent some sessions with the Windmill Hill City Farm older people’s group  asking them about their memories of times past. As we began to discuss food, in the process, many other stories emerged, from work to play to the challenges faced day to day.

The benefits of reminiscing

Reminiscing is about reliving and sharing aspects of the past with others. Often our memories can be triggered by a song, smell, object or some other anchor which reminds of some aspect of our past experience.  Through reminiscence we can connect and relate to what’s gone before. It is not about cataloguing the past chronologically (such as you would on a CV) but about connecting with past experiences in an engaging and vivid way. This can help to foster self esteem, express individual identity, deliver a sense of achievement and self worth and provide perspective in relation to a life review.  In a group setting reminiscence can increase awareness of the uniqueness of individuals, highlight shared problems or concerns and increase a sense of belonging and acceptance.  Additionally sharing stories can help to increase understanding and widen perceptions of others experience and often encourage audiences to examine their own views with a realisation that we are all different and similarly, all see each other in different ways . Reminiscence is often used to help with dementia however in this case it was intended that we shared space, connected, had a nice time together and used the inspiration and stories to contribute to the arts project.

Lots of things were discussed but here is a mini – collection of accounts we heard from our group members.

Specific food memories:

  • ‘I loved corned beef stew – we never had any proper meat so we used to have corned beef stew – I liked it’
  • ‘No fruit, no bananas’
  • ‘I remember being in the shelter, eating a saucepan of stew with a wooden spoon and sitting on a plank of wood’
  • ‘My husband came from a family of nine – he used to eat a lot of offal’ (‘I guess you have to be quick with a family of nine’).
  • ‘In our day we only had two veg shops and you had to queue up. You took home whatever was there’
  • ‘I remember having to get up at 4am to go to the meat market so we could get some fat so we could cook chips’
  • ‘On VE day, the Americans would pass you in the street and pick you up and put you on the lorry… they were always chewing … they would always say ‘got any gum, chum?
  • ‘We used to do a lot more ourselves, keep chickens and have allotments for veg’
  • ‘I don’t remember ever learning to cook – I think it just came naturally’
  • “Bread and dripping it was very bad for us but oh so good……better than sex really!”
  • “Bath Chaps, they are pigs cheeks, oh so tasty, I would love to eat them again.”
  • “My nan used to take her chicken for a walk in the pram….I can see her now, the chicken with a bonnet on it”
  • “You would have a piece of wedding cake and a cup of tea, we couldn’t afford a buffet. We would sit round the piano and sing ‘Nelly D’ The men would have a beer, no beer for us”
  • “The cake was made up of one layer of cake at the top and the rest of the layers were made of cardboard with icing on it”
  • “My mother in law taught me how to cook, I grew up in an orphanage you see, no mam and dad, and I had no one to teach me. Chickens was a luxury, my mother in law would hang the chickens on the washing line so all the blood ran out. They showed me how to be a family, I had all the love from my husband’s family.”

Memories of work and leisure:

  • ‘I used to work with ammunition up at Avonmouth, testing the tins, the ammunition came in a tin like a petrol can, you used to have a big tank and you put the tin in and if it bubbled you knew there was a hole in it so you couldn’t use it. We did shift work and our days off we used to go to the Barclay tea dances on a Wednesday or to the cinema’
  • ‘I left school at 14 and I had several jobs, I worked with my brother in law dipping pokers. You needed to dip the ends in black paint so they could be safe to stoke the fire, and I worked in three pet shops’
  • ‘We didn’t have Halloween in my day, I remember May Day being a big celebration, the whole town would come out and dance around the Maypole, everyone and the Brownies and the Guides –  you would have a dress that matched the colour of the ribbon you had and you would all have to work together to plait it and keep the ribbons straight.  Someone would always get it wrong though or get a knot, we didn’t have much to do during the war ’

From past to present:

  • ‘We go to a lunch club for older people that’s really good, I don’t cook that much now, I’m not bothered, I might do a jacket potato. I’ve got family that see me, yes but only for a couple of hours a week. It’s not the same as coming to the farm or going to lunch club, it’s important to be part of a group – it’s good to have people to talk to’
  • ‘I like a roast dinner now or a piece of fish – the lunch clubs I go to are really good I don’t cook so much for myself these days’
  • ‘I’m on crutches so I can’t get out and about without the bus and groups like these. If they were not here well I wouldn’t go out’
  • ‘I like coming to the farm, going to the hairdressers and the lunch club it’s good to get out and about – before the community bus service and the community groups I didn’t really go anywhere – I didn’t go out at all’
  • ‘My scooter has been a god send since giving up driving – it’s good to get out and about and up to the church hall – people couldn’t believe it when they saw me zipping around on it’

The sessions were very enjoyable and we had a lot of fun. It really brought home to me the privileges we have today despite the current economic climate, and we picked up on lots of ‘make and mend tips’ and other bits of info including a recommendation for a brawn recipe for pigs trotters  . Also how our lifestyles have changed was emphasised, with many people in the group reliant on growing their own vegetables/raising livestock, shopping  locally and cooking slowly in comparison to today’s hectic consumer lifestyle.

Whilst we collected lots of stories and memories I was left with an overwhelming sense of the value of the wisdom that an elder’s perspective can often bring, as well as the importance of this specific community group and the benefits of community activity in general. I was grateful and privileged to be a part of the sharing.

Do you have a recipe passed down through generations, a favourite childhood food or thrifty idea to share with us? – Please get in touch – we would love to hear from you!

Windmill Hill City farm also runs a variety of volunteer projects from farming to radio – read about them here and contact Jules Allen for further information and to take part in our project.

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Clown jam – down at the farm..

Our first ever clown music session at Windmill Hill City Farm  – Clowns – we don’t know what we are doing and it’s okay!! – with Pawlala Flaming, Jules Allen, Carlos Pulido, Agüi Garcia.

Ujima Radio interview – more Caring at Christmas

Here are the links to the Ujima Radio interview we did about Caring for Christmas. Thanks to presenter Rhianan and co interviewees Ellise Scourse and Tommy Popcorn. Check out Ujima Radio for some fresh tunes 98 FM Bristol. http://www.ujimaradio.com

Part one: – starts at around – 20:24

http://www.podcasts.canstream.co.uk/ujimaradio/audio/ujimaradio_14-01-13_1-16_1358179206.mp3

Part two:

http://www.podcasts.canstream.co.uk/ujimaradio/audio/ujimaradio_14-01-13_1-17_1358182807.mp3

ujima

A Christmas made visible (altruism is dead, long live reciprocity -) a second experience of ‘Caring at Christmas’

As with many things (a song, a poem, a sample of data, a performance) a blog post can represent a glimpse, a single account and perspective of a specific moment in time. I wrote about my first experience of Caring at Christmas in 2011 having volunteered the previous year.  Despite having enjoyed my time, I left feeling cynical. I completed only three shifts but the memories of the people I encountered stayed with me, as did the knowledge that their lives would not change radically. It seemed the shelter provided an all too temporary respite from the realities of an often harsh everyday existence. This I now understand is a common ‘first timers’ reaction, referred to fondly as ‘The Florence Nightingale effect’.  Whilst I never ever set out to assist with any kind of life ‘intervention’ I left feeling frustrated at the ways of the world, at the cycle of poverty, crime, addiction, prostitution that it was possible to get stuck in, at the ‘system’ which was struggling to support people with complex needs and which often could not, and also particularly with cases of addiction, the inevitable inability of many people to help themselves.

Yet, in spite of this, this December I was back at the Shelter and in it for the long haul. So what was different? Well my circumstances for one. Due to a change of career direction I found myself, to begin with, with a little time on my hands. This year it wasn’t possible to make the long rail journeys to visit family scattered around the UK. Whilst I probably I could have blagged a place somewhere local for dinner on the 25th, as I am sure many others could testify there are few things to make you feel  more like an alien appendage than being tagged onto someone else’s family dinner on Christmas day. I’d been keen to get more experience working directly in frontline positions with people and I felt time at the Shelter would provide this.  I wasn’t done with this topic of volunteering and my ongoing quest to understand if altruism really existed, but mostly I was just cheesed off with the ‘same old, same old’ engine of (often conspicuous) consumption Christmas had become.  I can’t say I’d previously given religion that much thought (and caring at Christmas is not a religious organisation) but I’m pretty convinced had Jesus ever had the misfortune of witnessing two grown women locking horns like stags in a trolly fight over the last figgy pudding in Asda, it’s fair to say our bearded friend he would be ‘turning in his cave’.

Having had some experience of Caring at Christmas my expectations of the overall impact I might have on the lives of guests were lower, but perhaps more significantly I’d been forced to admit, that this year as a volunteer, I needed the Shelter as much as the Shelter needed me. This year I completed just under 12 shifts. From set up on Christmas eve I was there until we said goodbye when the shelter closed on New Years day.  My task was the same.. a ‘general’ assistant – which meant working in the day room alongside the guests – companionship, tea drinking, talking and listening, toilet duty, some housekeeping tasks and ‘mucking’ in with anything else that was needed.

The stories I heard and sometimes the scenes I witnessed could often be challenging… serious abuse, rape, extreme self harm, multiple addiction  (in some cases) but also something as simple as needing company, a joke and a nice cup of tea at an often emotionally testing time of year.

I could relay their stories to you, as I did in my last blog post, but truth be told.. this year I decided they are not mine to tell.  From my experience I can say however that the terms: homeless, vulnerable, mentally ill, in crisis, addicted, psychotic (I could go on) often melt quickly into insignificance when you realise the person you are speaking despite their circumstances is just like you.

The shelter gave me an opportunity to apply my clown training in a way that I had not anticipated. I didn’t perform, mime or roll about with a red nose on, but the skills I learnt through clown enabled me to engage with guests at the shelter.  To be able to see the humanity beneath behaviour and context is vital and clown training helped me to do this. A guest told me that life on the street is ruled by the ‘laws of the jungle’ and it was perhaps this primal basis of clown communication which often helped me engage with people comfortably in a way that I couldn’t have done before.  Additionally the potential of the creative arts was emphasised as I was amazed at how a painting, drawing and often rap or poem could have such power as a tool of expression, understanding and source of discussion and meaning.

I put in some hours this year, and I also learnt the need for ‘care of the self’ in an often emotionally demanding role. I managed effectively and only really began to feel emotional towards the end during the last few shifts. As I had previously questioned the impact of the shelter years before, I was humbled when a guest shared his view with me. Yes, he said, the shelter was temporary, but for those few days it was often the only time of the year that the guests knew where they would sleep, were guaranteed a hot meal and most significantly, he said tearfully, a safe space.  As a performer I know that the need for a ‘safe space’ in order to create is vital. Whilst the context was radically different I could suddenly comprehend the daily roulette wheel that life on the street could be and that this short term provision over Christmas was vitally important and meaningful to our guests, particularly when other support services were shut.

My experience at the shelter gave me so much this year. It reminded me of the necessity and experience of everyday and simple work, gratitude, friendship, teamwork, companionship, and acceptance. Whilst all of the 300+ volunteers each had their own reason for being at the shelter this Christmas I learnt the potential of goodwill en masse from people of varying and also no religion. In short, I discovered that those long forgotten perhaps more traditional principles of Christmas were still very much alive, when I gave Cribbs Causeway and the EastEnders Christmas omnibus a miss and actually bothered to go out and look for them.

I also learnt more about the organisation – how it acts as kind of broker for other charities, how none of the donations received are wasted and are passed on. I found ways to continue to help beyond the Christmas period both with ‘Caring at Christmas’ and associated new charity ‘Safe Stay Bristol’ – a sudden homelessness intervention scheme for 16-25 year olds.

My choice to volunteer with the homeless at Christmas could be met by others with bafflement around my own motivations or expectations, and its true not everyone could see the value in such an activity. So I will admit now that its not altruism, in fact I am a very, very selfish person. I volunteered because amongst the communitas and Christmas spirit, this experience allowed me to see further potential in my own skills and abilities, and gain confidence in their application.  It wasn’t always easy, and I accepted that my impact on the lives of the guests is unlikely to engender any measurable or significant change. However if I have learnt anything from the guests I’ve met its the ongoing daily need for hope, companionship and laughter in the face of great adversity.

The real truth is that I had a choice to be there, in that moment, and hold the hand of a rape victim while she recovered from her ordeal… or not… and this time I chose to be there regardless of the outcome, in the knowledge that she was holding my hand too.

So,

next Christmas,

you’ll know where to find me.

Caring at Christmas is a registered charity that helps homeless people at Christmas and throughout the year

Please visit the website above for further information about the organisation and volunteering. I’ll also be running the Bristol 10K in May so keep your eyes peeled for my Justgiving page coming soon – Happy New Year!

Clown is a philosophy… (a little radio interview I did about clown..)

Happy 2013. Here is a little interview I did with radio presenter Kirstie Paul who presents ‘Backchat’ which goes out on BCFM and some other stations.. listen past the interesting discussions about pilgrimages and tax evasion and you’ll get to the interview..

Backchat clown interview

Stay tuned! 😉